.A study by Columbia University has found that asanas can even help tackle osteoporosis. Eleven people with an average age of 68 were studied over five years and researchers found that those who practised yoga saw increase bone density in their spines and hips compared to the seven who did not.
Given that exercise can become tricky as you age, doctors in India are also recommending yoga, as part of fitness regimens — and gyms and training centres are beginning to offer special packages for those over 50.
In south Delhi, the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre recently launched a special 90-minute class called Gentle Yoga for precisely this demographic. “Some problems are more common among older people, such as impaired lung capacity, digestion issues, bone and joint aches, so the class has been designed keeping this in mind,” says director of the centre PC Kapoor.
Yoga, he says, offers several kriyas (practices) and asanas (postures) that can boost immunity and improve flexibility. Ten people have currently signed up for this year-old class, some of them travelling for more than 40 km either way, five days a week, to attend the early-morning sessions.
Ghaziabad residents Shivani and her husband SS Mondal are among them. “My blood pressure used to be very high — around 180/90 mmHg before I joined these classes, but within nine months, the systolic reading has dropped to about 140/80 mmHg,” says Shivani, 62. Her husband had neurological problems and shaky limbs. “I tried physiotherapy for a while but didn’t enjoy it much; then my daughter searched online and found this centre. In nine months, there is marked improvement in my condition,” he says.
Doctors say yoga is increasingly being used to help people cope with symptoms associated with chronic illnesses too. It also helps improve mood, strengthens muscles and bones for greater balance, and boosts lung capacity to build stamina. However, like every other form of exercise and fitness regimen, benefits of yoga are best availed when practised under expert guidance, specially in old age.
“While I encourage my patients to do yoga, I strictly warn them against stopping prescription medicines, which are a more evidence-based form of treatment,” says Dr AB Dey, head of geriatric department at AIIMS, Delhi. “Let the doctors assess whether the medicine or its dosage needs to be stopped or changed if your readings are under control.”
Most novices swear by the benefits. Delhi-based stay-at-home mother Shobha Tuteja, for instance, has been practising yoga for the past one year, and is now recommending it to her peers. “I was hardly getting any physical activity before I started these classes. After a year of yoga, I can feel the difference; my breathing has improved, my joints and muscles are more flexible and I feel more energy within me,” says the 52-year-old.
Breathing kriyas are being used to alleviate symptoms of respiratory ailments; gentle exercises to keep crucial joints such as wrists, ankles, shoulders and toes flexible. For older people with physical limitations, the centre has modified the exercises “We relax the rules for people who’ve had surgery, implants or injuries and allow them to use a chair or a cushion, or bend only up to a point where there is no pain,” says Kapoor.
Another must is at least 30 minutes of surya namaskar (sun salutation) — a set of 12 postures that provide a complete cardiovascular workout. Apart from that, surya namaskar also strengthens the back and the body’s musculature. If performed regularly, it can lead to a flexible body.
And then there is meditation, which should last for about 20 minutes and helps calm the mind. “For people short on time, surya namaskar is the best thing to do as it encompasses all aspects of well-being,” says Kapoor.
However, the technique and timing of these exercises is important, which is why yoga practitioners warn against exercising without supervision. “These are easy exercises and can be done at home regularly, but you must learn them under the guidance of a skilled yoga practitioner,” says Abeba Alemayehu, a trainer at the Sivananda yoga centre.